Reporters Urge Debate Moderators To Do Better On Climate Change

Climate Change

The Washington Post's media writer Erik Wemple and Climate Desk's Tim McDonnell observed that debate moderators have thus far failed to adequately address climate change in the presidential debates, and urged them to ask more -- and better -- questions about the issue.

In a February 10 blog post on, Wemple stated that debate moderators “have had plenty of data to pose strong questions to candidates regarding climate change,” including the Pentagon issuing “a study identifying climate change as a national-security problem,” a determination that “could well have informed a number of sizzling questions from the leading lights of broadcast journalism regarding climate change.” Instead, Wemple noted, the “little substance” that moderators have provided on climate change through the first twenty presidential debates “show how easily journalists get sidetracked by frivolities in their quest to hold politicians accountable.”

Wemple examined several flawed questions from previous debates that “failed to yield an extended discussion of climate change,” and suggested that PBS, which is hosting a Democratic presidential debate tonight, “follow the example” of a graduate student from Arizona State University who managed to provoke a through discussion of the topic:

For tips on how to phrase a simple and consequential question, the PBS-ers may want to follow the example of an outsider. During the Oct. 13 CNN Democratic debate, Arizona State University graduate student Anna Bettis of Tempe, Ariz., asked via video, “As a young person, I'm very concerned about climate change and how it will affect my future. As a presidential candidate, what will you do to address climate change?” An extensive discussion of the topic followed.

Easily done, right?

Not right, to judge from other attempts by full-time journalists to poke at this topic.

McDonnell, who is Climate Desk's Associate Producer, similarly criticized debate moderators in a February 11 article for Mother Jones, stating that the debates “so far have tended more toward theater of the absurd than substantive policy issues,” and “climate change has barely surfaced.” McDonnell argued that "[t]he moderators need to dig much deeper" in order to provide “a clearer view of how the different candidates would (or wouldn't) confront global warming.” 

In order to “help out the moderators,” McDonnell reached out to climate scientists, environmentalists, academics, economic and defense experts, a former Republican congressman and even actor Mark Ruffalo to provide some ideas for questions to ask the candidates. You can see the list of potential questions that McDonnell compiled here

From Mother Jones: 

The moderators need to dig much deeper. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a major national security threat; cities and states are investing in clean energy and protection from extreme weather; and President Barack Obama will soon officially sign the global climate deal reached in Paris.

“It's amazing when you think of the infrastructure and other changes we're gonna see, that people are not asking hard questions about 'What is your plan to address emissions, and prepare for the changes?,'” says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.